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The Collaborative Concept Album 'Planetarium' Captures Cosmic Grandeur And Desolation

Part of the cover art for <em>Planetarium</em>, the concept album by Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, James McAlister and Bryce Dessner.
Courtesy of the artist
Part of the cover art for Planetarium, the concept album by Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, James McAlister and Bryce Dessner.

Since its premiere in 1918, Gustav Holst's symphonic cycle The Planets has effectively defined the informal genre of "music about space." But more recently, four prominent artists from different musical realms collaborated on a cosmic exploration of their own. It culminated in Planetarium, which was released earlier this month.

Work on Planetarium began in 2011, when composer Nico Muhly was commissioned to create a longform work for a concert hall in Europe. He gathered friends from the rock world — the singer and songwriter Sufjan Stevens and his longtime drummer James McAlister, as well as guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner from The National. They set out to make a sprawling song cycle about the solar system, spending a few days brainstorming, harvesting grooves and song ideas.

They then divided up the best fragments and developed them independently: Stevens came up with the pop hooks, McAlister the rhythmic foundations and some electronic textures. Dessner added spectral arrays of guitar while Muhly handled the orchestrations for string quartet and a brass choir comprised of seven trombones.

Planetarium devotes a separate track to each planet, then adds sections on other space phenomena like black holes and comets. The 80-minute concept album unfolds like a Disney ride, alternating between turbulent passages and moments of disturbing calm.

As Holst knew, music about space should evoke that eerie feeling of desolation. Planetarium captures that spectacularly, those episodes offset by Stevens' songs. Where he once planned to release an album dedicated to each state in the union, the indie songwriter has now moved off-planet. His writing vibrates with metaphysical awe and wonder, as if he's trying to understand the incomprehensible.

The ambitious scope and grandeur of Planetarium is enough to melt any cynical assumptions about its hipster artistic pretension. These four musicians probably would rather not be referred to as a "supergroup," but the veritable constellation of sound emerging from the combination of their talents is dizzying.

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.